Debut albums can be a mixed bag. Sometimes, they feature artists or bands trying to find their footing and nail their musical style and public image. But sometimes a debut album truly shines—and even makes history. Let’s look at five of the best debut albums of all time, from punk rock to R&B and a few sub-genres in between.
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Joy Division became a hugely influential band during the Second British Invasion of the 1980s, releasing hits such as “She’s Lost Control.” But their first album, Unknown Pleasures, didn’t make waves when it was released. It wasn’t until the album was rereleased after lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide that it attracted significant attention and eventually came to be regarded as one of the best debut albums ever.
The lyrics are intense, dark, and philosophical. At the same time, the music and mixing were nothing short of revolutionary, introducing many techniques that would continue to dominate the music scene through the 1980s and beyond.
Proving, once again, that critical reception and legacy don’t always correspond, The Who’s debut album, My Generation, saw an underwhelming response. Critics called it a rush job on the heels of their first major single, “I Can’t Explain.”
Retrospective looks have been much more generous, recognizing the album’s intense and complex musical elements. Many of these would come to define the emerging genres of garage rock and power pop. Today, My Generation is considered not just one of the best debut albums of all time, but also fundamental to the development of modern rock.
The British punk band The Clash exploded onto the scene in 1977 with their eponymous debut album. Though they later became known for their equally explosive third album, London Calling, The Clash is widely considered one of the best debut albums ever released. The album was unapologetically punk rock but with a surprising amount of stylistic variation, including reggae and classic rock ‘n’ roll elements.
Many bands need help finding their footing in their early music. Not The Clash—their first studio album was already chock-full of everything they stood for, including their signature outspoken political commentary on tracks such as “White Riot” and “Career Opportunities.”
The Doors were undoubtedly one of the most influential bands of the art rock movement, as was evident from their first album released in 1967. The Doors LP was something new: a rock record driven by organ music, and concluding with an artistic spoken-word track. It was an unabashedly experimental and melodramatic album that nevertheless spawned a hit single (“Light My Fire”) and became the blueprint for the future of psychedelic rock. The album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
Lauryn Hill had previously been a member of the Fugees, but her debut album as a solo artist made waves in an entirely different way. It was a turnaround from her past hip-hop efforts, a warm and gentle album about love, justice, and freedom.
It could have been sentimental or saccharine, but Hill’s performance is authentically joyful. She flawlessly incorporated elements of genres like R&B, soul, reggae, and even doo-wop (exemplified by first single “Doo Wop (That Thing)”), and included tracks featuring D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige. The result was hip-hop reimagined for a universal audience. It’s certainly one of the greatest debut albums of all time, and has proven particularly important to the history of African-American music.
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